Authorities in Hong Kong have tightened security around the South Korean consulate in the city amid reports that a teenage member of a visiting North Korean math team has defected there, local media reported.
Police have stepped up patrols around the building housing the diplomatic mission in Hong Kong's Admiralty district after the city's South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that an 18-year-old male had sought political asylum there.
The defector was part of an eight-member delegation to the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The group had consisted of six students and two teachers, but the teachers had taken the rest of the group back across the internal immigration border into China with one student missing.
An official who answered the phone at the South Korean consulate on Thursday declined to comment.
"There is no spokesperson, and no department, who wishes to make a statement on this matter at this time," the official said.
China's foreign ministry said merely that it was "following the relevant reports," while calls to the headquarters of the Chess Olympiad rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Local media showed armed officers standing guard at the entrances to the Far East Finance Center building, which houses the South Korean mission.
According to the SCMP, the young man went missing some time between late evening on July 16 and early morning on July 17, after the closing ceremony of the math competition.
The rest of the North Korean delegation left Hong Kong at the Lo Wu border checkpoint on July 19, the paper said.
"It was subsequently revealed that the missing student had defected and was seeking asylum," it said.
The competition website listed the student competitors as gold medal winners Ri Myong-hyok and Jon Kum-song and silver medalists Choe Un-song, Han Yu-song, Kim Il-jin and Ri Jong-yol.
At least three of the group had previously traveled outside the isolated Stalinist state, it said, citing a source close to the group as saying they all spoke fluent English.
Hong Kong journalists were shooed away from the consulate lobby on Thursday, while South Korean Consul General Kim Kwang-dong and his officials declined to comment.
Repeated attempts to make contact with the North Korean mission by phone or in person yielded no result, although the consular office appeared to be staffed, the SCMP said.
In South Korea, a foreign ministry official told Reuters that it is official policy not to comment on the status of North Korean defectors in order to protect them from reprisals.
The defector’s aim
Steve Chung, North Korean specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the defector's aim is likely to be settlement in a third country, rather than impinging on Hong Kong.
"Those who are able to get to Hong Kong are usually members of the political elite from the cities, perhaps with a high-ranking official background," Chung said. "At that point, their claim to political persecution looks somewhat different."
"They need to select an appropriate country and then seek asylum at the consulate of that country," he said.
Chung said Hong Kong's role in events would be very limited.
"Actually, there is very little that Hong Kong authorities can do about this, because this is a diplomatic matter," Chung said.
"However, the South Korean consulate may, if they believe there is enough of a threat, call the police for assistance."
Authorities in North Korea typically retaliate against the families of defectors, and offer rewards and promotions to anyone who reports people smugglers and defection attempts.
Pyongyang has also instituted an intensive “ideological education” program designed to stop its citizens working in China from defecting to South Korea.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, some 2,700 defectors entered South Korea in 2011, falling to 1,396 in 2014.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.